July 1 is Canada Day. But this year’s celebration is especially important, as it marks the 150th anniversary of the country’s confederation.
The celebration wasn’t always called Canada Day. It was previously called Dominion Day, reflecting the status Canada had obtained with passage of the British North American Act in 1867.
When Canada passed its constitution in 1982, it had shed much of its formal ties with Great Britain and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (whose son Justin Trudeau is now prime minister) wanted the holiday’s name to reflect Canada’s autonomy.
But Trudeau faced opposition to changing the name of Dominion Day. Typical of Trudeau, he passed legislation on the sly. On July 9, 1982, with Parliament short of a quorum, Trudeau passed in the House of Commons legislation changing the name from Dominion Day to Canada Day. As for the quorum, it could be waived as long as the session was not Parliament’s first sitting of the year and no one present objected. But the spirit of the proceedings was more sneaky than democratic.
Of course, Canada enjoys an autonomy beyond the status of a dominion. Indeed, even before the Constitution of 1982 (which Trudeau also passed on the sly) Canada was more than a dominion.
The problem is that Canada knows it’s not a dominion but does not really know much else about itself. Whereas the United States celebrates Independence Day on the 4th of July, it’s not clear what Canada is celebrating, other than its mere existence.
Indeed, the essence of Canada’s identity is to know what it is not. Canadians are proud to proclaim they are not the United States. Borrowing from Lyndon B. Johnson’s proclamations of a Great Society, Trudeau campaigned for the Constitution calling on Canada to be a “Just Society.”
Of course, there is also in the dynamic the wild card of French Canadians who live in the province of Quebec (many of whom cling to the dream of sovereignty). The irony is that French Canadians who feel they have no country of their own still know who they are, as opposed to English Canada (which has its own country but lacks identity).
Canada is a beautiful country and has much to offer. Its standard of living is comparable to that of the United States and its democracy is secure. But these elements amount to gifts as opposed to an identity. This phenomenon goes far in explaining the animosity English Canada harbors toward French Canada (and vice-versa). For there are the French Canadians who know who they are and what they want, as opposed to the rest of Canada certain only of who they are not.
John O’Neill is a freelance writer in Allen Park. He covered the Quebec referendum vote in 1995 for National Review.